Saudi architect Sumaya Dabbagh is shortlisted for Tamayouz’s Woman of Outstanding Achievement Award. Here, she discusses her mission to improve the quality of architecture across the GCC.
Q&A with Sumaya Dabbagh
Saudi architect and founder of Dabbagh Architects, Sumaya Dabbagh talks about her award-winning Mleiha Archaeological Centre, upcoming projects and launching RIBA Gulf Chapter.
Tell us about starting your practice.
Having worked with big and medium sized international practices, I felt frustrated with seeing so much imported architecture to the region that is not appropriate for our climate or culture.
Being a local architect, I felt a responsibility to help shape our region in a more relevant way. Ultimately, I wanted to have more autonomy on the kind of projects I would work on, as well as the ability to express my own design approach.
How do you hope Dabbagh Architects contributes to the built environment of the GCC?
My hope and vision for my practice is that the work we do will highlight the importance of contextual and culturally relevant design for our region and our communities.
Your project in Mleiha gained a lot of recognition – would you consider it a landmark project for your practice? And how does it reflect your architectural thinking?
Very much so. The Mleiha Archaeological Centre allowed me the freedom to work with the site parameters, setting and local history. The client was also key to the project’s success – they came on board and were supportive throughout the design and construction process.
How has the Mleiha centre impacted those that have come after?
We got a lot of positive attention after Mleiha was completed and the project was recognised via a number of regional and international awards. Since then, we have been invited to participate in bids for other cultural projects in the region.
You were instrumental in starting the RIBA Gulf Chapter, and you currently lead it. Tell us about your work with RIBA, and what you’ve accomplished thus far.
After graduating and starting my career in Europe, I came back to the Gulf and found a major disparity between the Gulf and the West in terms of their approaches to design and architecture.
My personal mission then became to spread awareness of the value of good design, as well as raising the standards of both design and practice in the region. This was totally aligned with the mission of the RIBA Gulf Chapter. The support of current and past RIBA Presidents has meant that the chapter sees continued growth and recognition.
We have also now validated Abu Dhabi University as an RIBA School of Architecture and Heriot Watt University is on its way to being validated. We have introduced RIBA Part 3 Exams to the region as well as the RIBA Chartered Practice Scheme. All of these initiatives have set higher standards for education and practice, which are open to the local audience. Ultimately the goal is to create our own highly qualified, responsible architects who will shape our cities of the future.
You’ve just revealed a new project – Al Ain Museum – can you tell us about it briefly?
We were invited to participate in a design competition for the Al Ain Museum in 2017, and we are really proud to have won the project against 15 other international practices. Al Ain Museum sits within a World Heritage buffer zone, adjacent to Al Ain Oasis and Sultan Fort. It was built in 1971 by the Late Sheikh Zayed and was the first museum in the UAE.
Our brief was to restore the fort and existing museum and add a sizable extension to the site. Our design has sought to respect and enhance this rich setting rather than take anything away from it.
What can we expect from you in the next few years?
It’s an exciting time for us at the moment. We are working on a cultural study in a very important and historical area in Saudi Arabia, and we hope that this will create more opportunities there.
We have also been invited to participate in other cultural projects in the UAE. These are all confidential at the moment, so watch this space!
Our Meet the Finalists series is a compilation of interviews with those who have been shortlisted for our awards. Sumaya Dabbagh is a finalist for Tamayouz’s award for women in architecture and construction, which awards female architects from the Middle East and North Africa.